Named for a small fish with silvery stripes down the length of its body, the USS Silversides (SS-236)* is a submarine of the mass produced Gato-class that played a vital role in World War II for the U.S. Navy. In response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a modern fleet boat was called for to wage destruction on the Imperial Japanese Navy and its merchant marine. She was commissioned eight days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 15, 1941.
The Silversides was built by the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, California, where her keel was laid down on November 4, 1940 in anticipation of future conflict with Japan. These boats had to be capable of traveling up to 12,000 miles and carrying food, torpedoes, and fuel to last up to 3 months (Scott 2014).
During the years following the First World War, American engineers devoted much time to deconstructing captured German submarines to correct any inferiorities American subs might have. It was found that in addition to the quick, 30 second dive speeds attainable by the German subs, they also had better periscopic optics, ventilation systems, gyroscopes, and air compressors (Scott 2014). The call for better technology prompted the development of the Gato-class fleet submarines, of which the Silversides was one of the highest performing.
Measuring 311 feet long by 27 feet at its widest point, this diesel-electric submarine could make 21 knots with its twin propellers when surfaced, and 9 knots submerged. Propelled by four 9 cylinder diesel engines driving electric generators, this submarine is outfitted with 24 torpedoes, one 50 caliber deck gun, a 40mm and a 20mm cannon, and typically carried 6 officers and 54 enlisted individuals. Fully loaded, the Silversides had a displacement of 1,525 tons surfaced and 2,424 tons submerged.
The propulsion capabilities of the Gato-class Silversides enabled it to submerge for up to 48 hours, crawling at approximately two knots on electric power. In addition to increasing the submarine’s stealth, the battery power option conserved fuel until the sub had to resurface to recharge the batteries off the diesel engines (Scott 2014).
Over the course of her life, she completed 14 war patrols and sank 23 vessels (90,080 tons); this is the third highest number of enemy ships sunk during the war by a United States submarine, and among the top five for tonnage sunk during the war as well. The Silversides was awarded 12 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation before it was decommissioned on April 17, 1946. She ended service on June 30th, 1969 (Humphrey 1991).
During this time, the Silversides served in the Pacific fleet through enemy shipping routes along Japan’s coast and in the East China Sea. It also served time in the vicinity of the Caroline Islands, New Ireland, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Marianas Islands (Scott 2014). Its primary purpose in these areas was to restrict Japanese import of oil, rubber, iron ore, bauxite, coal, and food, or to halt it altogether if possible (Scott 2014).
For its time in service, the Silversides had three commanders: Lieutenant Commander Creed Caldwell Burlingame (Dec 1841-July 1943), Lieutenant Commander John Starr Coyle Jr. (July 1943-November 1944), and Commander John Culver Nichols (November 1944).
The most renowned captain of the Silversides, Lieutenant Commander Burlingame was the first commanding officer of World War II’s most highly decorated submarine. While under his command, the Silversides went on its first five patrols, sinking eight enemy ships and earning the crew a presidential citation. As captain of the submarine, Burlingame earned two Silver Stars and three Navy Crosses. He later went on to earn the Legion of Merit award for his accomplishments in the Pacific theatre of the war (Heise 1985).
Another notable individual to have served on the great USS Silversides was executive officer Roy M. Davenport. Though not obtained while on the Silversides, Davenport went on to become the only U.S. naval officer to have been awarded five Navy Crosses in history. Being the second highest decoration for valor in the United States military, these were not the only decorations to have been received by Davenport.
During his six patrols as commanding officer of fellow Gato-class submarines USS Haddock and USS Trepang, Davenport received two Silver Stars, two Presidential Unit Citations, two Navy and Marine Commendation medals, and numerous other military awards (Auten 1989). As commander of the Haddock alone, he was responsible for the sinking of 22 enemy ships. This itself speaks for the dominating role the advanced Gato-class U.S. submarines had in the scope of the war in the Pacific.
Historic Happenings on the Silversides
Another notable event that took place upon the USS Silversides was one of three emergency appendectomies performed on U.S. submarines throughout the course of the war.
The USS Silversides currently resides in Pere Marquette Park on the channel in Muskegon, Michigan where its own maritime museum is a major tourist attraction year round. The boat is open for tours and is still maintained in its original order (Davis 1987). It is unmodified except for her last refitting at Pearl Harbor in 1945.
*This sub should not be confused with its namesake, the Sturgeon-class, nuclear powered attack sub, USS Silversides (SSN-679).
- Heise, K. (1985, Oct 25). Obituaries. Chicago Tribune
- Boland, J. (1987, Mar 07). Silversides. Chicago Tribune
- Davis, R. (1987, August 9). Silversides Gets Hero’s Welcome. Chicago Tribune.
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- “Destination Tokyo” –Movie describing a 3 month cruise off the coast of Japan in 1942.